It's The End of the World As We Know It

I propose that it is time for us to accept as a premise in whatever environmental discussions we have -- or indeed, in any deliberations on anything taking place in the future -- the fact that the world is coming to an end.
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A scene on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom recently struck me, at first, as simply an astute and amusing commentary on global warming... until the real world chimed in with one of those life-imitating-art occasions suggesting that R.E.M.'s apocalyptic song is destined to be the soundtrack of our future.

First, the HBO moment: Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) interviews an EPA administrator (Paul Lieberstein, who will always be Toby Flenderson from The Office no matter what role he's playing) about a report that carbon dioxide levels have hit extremely dangerous new highs.

McAvoy begins in the usual mode for this sort of story, poised to emphasize the urgent threat of climate change while reinforcing the conventional platitudes that people need to take this seriously and work hard to remediate the problem.

His conversation, though, quickly goes off the rails.

"If you were the doctor and we were the patient," the anchor asks, "what's your prognosis? A thousand years, two thousand years?" The scientist's response takes him aback: "A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet."

McAvoy: You're saying the situation is dire?

EPA guy: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.

McAvoy: So what can we do to reverse this?

EPA: Well there's a lot we could do...

McAvoy (interrupts): Good...

EPA: ...20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But now, no.

McAvoy (becoming increasingly uncomfortable): Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?

EPA: Sure. It's as if you're sitting in your car, in your garage, with the engine running and the door closed, and you've slipped into unconsciousness. And that's it.

McAvoy: What if someone comes and opens the door?

EPA: You're already dead.

McAvoy: What if the person got there in time?

EPA: Then you'd be saved.

McAvoy: OK. So now what's the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?

EPA: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.

McAvoy: You sound like you're saying it's hopeless.

EPA: Yeah.

McAvoy: Is that the administration's position or yours?

EPA: There isn't a position on this any more than there's a position on the temperature at which water boils.

Then last week, an actual piece of journalism, the lead story in Monday's New York Times, confirms that things are indeed pretty much as desperate as Sorkin depicted on his pretend newscast. As the latest UN summit on greenhouse gases convenes in Peru, climate scientists report that a 3.6 degree rise seems inevitable, which they believe is "the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding."

Flipping back to one last bit of patter from The Newsroom: The EPA administrator tells McAvoy, "The last time there was this much CO2 in the air the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world's population lives within 120 miles of an ocean." "And the other?" "Humans can't breathe under water."

I propose that it is time for us to accept as a premise in whatever environmental discussions we have -- or indeed, in any deliberations on anything taking place in the future -- the fact that the world is coming to an end.

Well, not the world itself: The planet is actually pretty resilient, and will likely continue on its orbit unbothered by the warm spell; it's just people, along with most other life forms, that will disappear. Geologically, there's not so much to worry about; biologically, on the other hand, we have a situation.

Over the past decade -- since Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought global warming into the mainstream consciousness -- the rhetoric has been dire, but at least minimally hopeful: If we start doing this and stop doing that now, we can perhaps just barely salvage what is left of our ecosystem.

For a while it made sense, as Will McAvoy was trying to do on his newscast, to cling to a thread of hope in order to motivate reform and prevent people from descending into a paralyzing sense of helplessness.

But now it's time to accept our impending demise. Those are profoundly difficult words to write, but they are necessary: Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it's time to start talking about how we will die.

(Maxine Kumin has a poem called "Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief." It was.)

As depressing as this is, it has at least the virtue of being true, unlike the kick-the-can-down-the-road policies that pretend the solution for global warming lies in producing (someday!) cars that get 150 mpg and cities powered by wind farms. And expecting Westerners (the 12 percent of the world's population who consume 60 percent of its resources) to use less stuff.

If there's a silver lining, it is not a very satisfying one, but for what it's worth: I think it may prove refreshing, even exhilarating, to develop a new trope, a new truth, that lets go of the pretense that things will turn out ok.

"The progress narrative" that has undergirded Western culture for millennia was nice while it lasted, but it's also responsible for getting us where we are today, as it stoked the fantasy that we were invincibly moving ever forward, and that our rampantly voracious overdevelopment (exploration, imperialism, conquest, growth, "civilizing" nature) had no costs, no limits, no consequences.

As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.

Other cultures at similar points in their trajectory -- past the zenith, clearly waning yet close enough to the glories of the past -- have often produced keenly insightful literature and art. Being on the cusp of decline provokes incisive self-reflection -- as the Greeks called it, anagnorisis: recognition.

Cervantes achieved this in Don Quixote toward the end of Spain's Golden Age, as did T. S. Eliot in "The Waste Land," his report from the front lines of the cultural disintegration that accompanied the collapse of European imperialism and the War to End All Wars: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

On a personal level, we have lately begun to do a better job of dying, and of accepting death -- writing "death plans," forsaking heroic measures of resuscitation. So too as a species we may learn to accept the inescapability of our impending ecological fate. We can celebrate the bright spots from our past human heritage, acknowledge our follies, and finally, deal with it: It is what it is.

There will be a limited future audience for this brave new art, since we're hovering on the verge of extinction, but it will leave an interesting time capsule for whoever might come to recolonize the planet after we're gone.

"Anthropocene," a recently coined term for our present epoch, reflects the unique phenomenon of human impact that has changed (disrupted, ruined) the earth. Complementing this scientific assessment, a parallel aesthetic movement must acknowledge, better late than never, that we have irreparably fouled our nest.

We might demarcate our cultural expressions of this period as "epitaphal": our last words, as on a gravestone, inscribed with a solidity that will outlast our mortal frames and will announce for eternity (even in its conscribed scope) what kind of people we wanted to be and how we hoped we might be remembered.

Randy Malamud is Regents' Professor of English and chair of the department at Georgia State University.


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